Is “Virtue” a Scientific Concept?

The Rev. Benedict Ashley, O.P.

The concept of “virtue” plays little or no role in modern psychology because psychologists suppose that it is a “philosophical” term foreign to psychology as an empirical science.[i] Hence before this concept and the extensive tradition of study of human behavior in which has been used can play a role in scientific psychology this semantic problem must be overcome. In fact the distinction between a philosophical or rational psychology and an experimental or empirical and scientific psychology was first introduced by Christian Wolff in the 18th century. Wolff, a Cartesian dualist, identified “philosophy” with “metaphysics,” an identification originated by the medieval scholastic Duns Scotus. Hence for Wolff rational psychology was an application of metaphysics.[ii]

The main tradition, however, in which the concept of “virtue” was developed is that of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas the term “philosophy” was used to distinguish disciplines based on reason from theology based on faith. Hence it included the entire range of human thought that we call “the sciences.” Since for Aristotle and Aquinas human reason is always empirically based on sense experience, physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, as well as mathematics, ethics and politics are all “philosophy.”[iii] It is true that for this tradition metaphysics was philosophy par excellence but it was not, as for Wolff, a kind of deductive a priori science of the conditions of the possibility of knowledge presupposed to the inductive empirical sciences and independent of them, but was a reflection on all the special sciences that it presupposed and correlated.

Thus today the term “philosophy,” if used at all, should be restricted to metaphysics and the concept of “virtue “ needs to be empirically verified in scientific psychology and must be freed of all a priorism. Aristotle and Aquinas were in fact true behaviorists in psychology; though they did not assume, as did B. J. Skinner. that human behavior can be reduced to the same factors sufficient to explain the behavior of rats! [iv]

What does the terms “virtue” and “character” in the Aristotelian non-dualist tradition mean? For Aristotle human beings are a special kind of animal that behave in such a way as to deal satisfactorily with certain objects necessary for their survival and full development. Hence a science of psychology begins from the observation of these objects and then moves to an understanding of the actions by which humans deals with these objects. It then logically infers that humans have certain powers that enable them to perform these actions. Finally it analyzes human nature in terms of these powers and the needs these powers enable humans to satisfy. Thus psychology is structured on an object, action, power, need, nature basis. Only objects and actions, i.e., behavior, can be observed empirically, but the powers, needs, and nature of any animal including the human animal, can be logically inferred from these observations and further verified by more observation of such behaviors in varying situations.

Aristotelian and Thomistic psychology had its shortcomings not by being a priori and deductive, as histories of psychology often mistakenly assert, but by the primitive character of its observational techniques that remained at what we today would call the uncontrolled clinical level. Aristotle based his views on acute observations of Greek political behavior and Aquinas drew on centuries of observation of human virtues and vices by spiritual directors in monasteries and by confessors of the laity. Sigmund Freud himself has recently been severely criticized because his theories rested only on very limited and not always honestly reported clinical experience. [v]Psychology today must move beyond the clinical level to more precise techniques of observation, verification, and, if you will, falsification, without, however, neglecting the heritage of clinician and confessor.

How then did the notion of “virtue” arise? The tendency in Plato’s dualistic psychology was to explain all human behavior by a single factor, namely, reason. In Plato’s ethics there was a classification of the major virtues as “prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance” but justice, fortitude, and temperance were then reduced to prudence and prudence was identified with “wisdom,” that is, with the perfection of reason. [vi] Plato thought reason was a spiritual entity existing prior to the body and only by some strange fate entombed for a time in the body from which it hoped eventually to escape, perhaps after many cycles of reincarnation. Hence for him the virtue of wisdom, to which all other virtues were reduced, was innate to the eternal soul, not acquired from experience.

Aristotle rejected these views of his teacher because he believed that our knowledge arises only from experience. We acquire this experience through our bodily sense organs, process it in imagery, etc. and then analyze it in abstract, essential concepts.[vii] Thus we can infer that the human being has not just one power but a number of distinct powers specified by the objects with which they are able to deal. W we have five sense powers, touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. But our behavior demonstrates that we must also have some internal powers of imagery, we must have a memory of things already sensed, we must combine the images of these experiences, and we must evaluate their relevance, positive or negative, to the satisfaction of human needs.[viii] This imaginative process results in the bodily states we call emotions that manifest themselves not only in behavior but in physiological changes, such as when one blushes when frowned on by a superior. From this we can infer the existence of a set of several powers at several levels: the five external senses, the four kinds of internal senses, and the intellect that distinguishes human behavior from that of chimpanzees and manifests itself in language.[ix]

Virtue Presupposes Freedom

Human beings invent languages and highly diversified cultures instead of following fixed instinctual patterns as other animals do. This remarkable fact is best explained by inferring that humans must have the power of choosing among possible means to satisfy their ends, that is, they have free will. Some psychologists still seem to think that the scientific method implies a rigid determinism in nature. Modern quantum physics, however, has shown that natural science can work well enough without the assumption of absolute determinism in nature. That of course does not prove we have free will, since the alternative to deterministic causality may also be chance. In modern cosmology and evolutionary biology the synthesizing type of explanation is more and more historical narrative of chance events rather than deterministic law that only predicts a range of possibilities.[x] That we have free-will, however, is not contrary to the fact that human choices have to be made within a range of possibilities and this is done not by mere chance but by the human agent intelligently and deliberately weighing one possibility against another.[xi] Since such practical deliberation seldom shows the absolute superiority of one means over the others, the actual choice must be attributed to the freedom of the chooser.[xii] Thus the very concept of psychotherapy rests on the assumption that this therapy will free the client from rigid and unreasonable behavior for reasonable, free choice of behavior.

Models of Human Personality

According to Salvatore Maddi [xiii] modern psychological theories of personality can be classified in three types: the conflict Model of Freud and Jung, the Fulfillment Model of Curran and Maslow, and the Consistency Model Maddi himself favors. The model used by Aristotle in his anthropology and ethics and followed by Aquinas is closest to the Fulfillment Model, but can easily assimilate the features of the other two models. Thus the Aristotleian methodology in psychology furnishes, just as empirically as does modern psychology, an account of the human person and human behavior. It concludes that human beings universally have certain basic needs that must be satisfied for survival and full development. Hence they also have a number of hierarchically ordered powers by which these needs can usually be met. In this classification of powers a fundamental distinction must be made between cognitive powers and affective powers, the objects of the first being various kinds of information and of the second being positive or negative reactions to this information. Moreover a cross distinction must be made between powers, whether cognitive or affective, that deal with concrete objects, namely, the objects of the sense powers, and those that deal with abstract analysis of this sense data, namely, the intelligence and the will.[xiv]

Virtues and Character

The concepts of “virtue” and “character” become necessary in such a psychology when we observe that human behavior is modified by learning to a far greater extent than is the behavior of other animals. Furthermore this learning is not simply the acquisition of information but of skill in using that information in ways that are effective in satisfying human needs. [xv] Thus intellectual education is not just learning facts and explanatory theories, it is also acquiring skill in using this information for various freely chosen purposes, for example to be a lawyer or a doctor. Such skills are needed not only to solve the more difficult problems people meet in satisfying their needs, and especially the needs that are fixed in human nature but also to do so consistently and without undue stress and strain on the human organism.

Human beings are complex, bodily organisms that undergone constant change and variation. Consequently it is quite difficult for any of us who have made a choice of behavior to carry that through to the goal. We are easily distracted, discouraged, act impulsively, fail to adjust and adapt to change, etc., etc., and consequently often end by frustrating ourselves. We need therefore, a set of skills that enable us to behave consistently in an appropriate manner throughout the course of whole career, indeed of a whole life. It is all too obvious that many people lack such skills and get in a life time get nowhere. A virtue, therefore, is a learned skill, acquired by repeated practice, to deal with the problems of life effectively so as to satisfy a human need intrinsic to human nature.[xvi]

The Intellectual Virtues

Thus two kinds of virtue need to be distinguished: (1) those that are intellectual, and (2) those are acquired by the will or the sense appetites (it seems the external senses are not subject to skills). Aquinas distinguishes three kinds of intellectual skill that differ as regards the kind of intellectual problems with which they deal. [xvii]The first two are intuition (intellectus) and logical reasoning. Some people have skill in grasping the basic assumptions of any field of learning, others in making logical inferences from such assumptions. Every science requires both kinds of skill, since in every science there are basic principles not evident to the unlearned. It is on these principles that explanatory theories are built. Against Plato who tried to reduce all science to a single great Idea, [xviii] Aristotle defended the autonomy of a number of sciences with quite different kinds of principles. [xix] For example, the axioms of mathematics are quite different in character and based on different facts than are those of natural science.

The reasoned kinds of knowledge we call the sciences are divided into theoretic sciences which attempt to explain observed facts, and the practical sciences which consider the various possible means to achieve given ends. Every practical science presupposes at least one theoretic science. For example, engineering presupposes physics. Practical sciences, again, are of two types. Some practical sciences seek the means to freely chosen ends. These are the technologies of which there can be as many as we can invent and develop. Second, there are the ethical sciences that seek the means to satisfy basic human needs that we do not chose but which are given in our natures. Thus there must be at least three ethical sciences of individual, of family, and of communal living.

All these theoretic and practical sciences or intellectual virtues are acquired by learning and practice in critical thinking and are served by the arts of logic. Yet we do not usually speak of them as forming a person’s character, since you can be a great scientist or engineer and still be a very bad person. The exception to this is the intellectual virtue of ethics or prudence that requires further discussion.

The Moral Virtues

Since human beings have intelligence and free will they can use these to guide their actions to satisfy realistically and effectively not only to meet freely chosen goals, such as to make a million dollars, but also to satisfy those needs that are so much a part of our human nature that if they are not met we will be miserable and eventually will not survive. For example, our need to eat and drink is not something we choose, although we can choose within a certain range the kind of food and drink that we will use to meet this need and we can devise various technologies to produce these kinds. We must, however, eat and drink and we can do this in a way that truly satisfies our fixed need for proper nourishment and enables us not only to survive but also to be healthy. On the other hand, sadly enough, we can eat too little or too much or foods that do not make for health.

Thus for all of us, whether we be thick or thin, what, how much, and when is one of the fundamental problems of human life that each of us has the ethical responsibility to solve and this solution is not always easy. To consistently make good decisions about our eating we need an intellectual virtue that helps us realistically and cautiously yet with ingenuity decide how, what, and when to eat. This is in part a problem that a skilled dietician who has acquired the technology or practical science of dietetics can help us with. But even after we have the dietician’s advice we have to apply it intelligently to the concrete situations we meet in life; for example, to choose or not to choose to have some desert at a party. To do this consistently requires the intellectual skill or virtue of prudence, skill in practical thinking about satisfying our innate nutritional needs. [xx]

Prudence is a virtue that especially requires a great deal of experience beyond any book learning or set of rules. It can be assisted, however, by a systematization that resembles a scientific theory since it is based on the life sciences and this is called ethics from the Greek ethos, “character.” To have a fully developed virtue of prudence at least an intuitive kind of ethics is required and for difficult problems in life a systematic, scientific ethics itself or the advice of those who know such an ethics. Thus prudence is the guide of human life and in practical living serves the same governing role as wisdom does in the theoretical order. It is practical wisdom. Thus it is primarily an intellectual virtue and yet it governs the ethical or moral order. Aquinas argues that it is, therefore, the greatest of the four cardinal moral virtues.

We cannot think realistically about our needs, however, if we do not take two other kinds of problems into consideration, namely, our relations with other people, and the control of our own emotions. Since human beings, as Aristotle said, [xxi] are “political animals,” that is, social beings who cannot achieve their personal goals except in cooperation, communication and sharing with others in a common good, nothing could be more imprudent than to lack respect for the rights of others. Thus skill in thinking of the needs and rights of others is the second cardinal virtue, justice [xxii]. It is difficult for us to be either prudent or just, however, if our emotions or rather the drives that produce these emotions prevent us from thinking clearly and objectively. Aristotle and Aquinas concluded from experience that we have two basic sets of such drives, a view to which Sigmund Freud also finally came, at least if his notion of the “death wish” is interpreted in the better way advocated by many of his disciples.[xxiii] One of these sets of drives are those that move us to seek what gives us physical pleasure, for example our pleasure in food and sex; and another that moves us to seek power over our environment or other persons who raise difficulties for us in attaining our goals. The pleasure drive is Freud’s libido and the power drive his aggression that he called a “death wish” only because he first observed it in its morbid form of aggression turned against the self. The cardinal virtue that controls the pleasure drive is moderation (temperance) and the one that controls the power drive is courage (fortitude).[xxiv]

Psychotherapy and Virtue

Psychology observes the effects of these drives and how they can interfere with human social relations and with realistic thinking about the fulfillment of human needs. It then tries to find therapies that will remove whatever prevents clients from acquiring the skills they need to deal with these life problems. The obstacles that need to be overcome can be at two levels. The first level is that of sense cognition in which imagery and emotion, whether unconscious, subconscious, or conscious determine behavior. In mentally healthy people these do not so powerfully restrict realistic intellectual thought that freedom of choice is radically impaired. But for persons with neuroses, compulsions, or addictions this freedom is radically restricted and in psychosis it is blocked. There is, however, a second level of behavior that is possible for mentally healthy people who have acquired skills not in good but in bad behavior, and we call these counter-skills, “vices.” For every virtue, Aquinas argues,[xxv] there can be two vices, skills in failing to do what is realistically needed to meet basic human needs either by excessive defect, such as the vice of doing violence to the rights of others and its opposite the vice of not standing up for human rights.

The Primacy of Prudence and Transformation by Grace

Among the four cardinal moral virtues, therefore, there is a hierarchy. Prudence guides the use of the other virtues. Justice makes human society possible. Courage and moderation free individuals from disordered affective drives to make prudent and just decisions, and also to support these decisions. Aquinas groups with these four cardinal moral virtues many other lesser virtues that deal with less urgent human needs. [xxvi]

Since as free persons we cannot live a virtuous life except in a community where virtue is strongly operative, and since as free persons we also invent a variety of customs and revise them from time to time, our empirical study of virtue has to be within a particular culture, or cross-culturally by comparison of human behaviors in different contexts. I would argue that the same basic virtues are needed in every culture, since the basic human needs are universal to the species homo sapiens that has not radically change in the 150,000 or so years of its existence. [xxx]There is nothing wrong with a given culture placing special emphasis on particular virtues particularly needed at a given time, but no culture will flourish unless all the enumerated virtues are sufficiently developed to meet basic human needs.

The history of the United States of America show that its founders knew the necessity for a virtuous citizenry for the nation to fulfill its ambition to be the “Land of Freedom.” Many Americans are in fact people of virtuous character or we would not have survived, but our institutions today so emphasize certain lesser skills, and particularly technological rather than ethical skills, that we are faced with what seems an American culture in decline. It may even be approaching the collapse suffered by other great cultures.

Our greatest moral danger, in the opinion of many persons of virtue, is the corruption of the natural institution of the family which evolution, as an instrument of God, has constructed as the milieu in which the child best acquires the fundamental virtues and in which cultural traditions that favor these virtues are passed on. This corruption has been promoted by the sexual revolution that denied the importance of the virtue of moderation in the control of our appetites for physical pleasure. It has been falsely claimed that sensual indulgence in sex and drugs is essential to human freedom when it fact these are vices that lead to addictive slavery. We have been blinded to this corruption of moral virtue by a related corruption of intellectual virtue by an educational system permeated by post-modern relativism.

The particular failure of American culture to support the virtue of moderation and the virtue of courage that is also needed to resist the temptations to sensual indulgence is concealed by a blanket of rationalization spread by the public media that obliterates that moral vision that it is work of the virtue of prudence to reveal. One has only to think of the way the American Association of Psychologists has supported the rationalizing gay propaganda. This propaganda first led to our AIDS epidemic and is now trying to replace the natural family institution by social approval of all kinds of pseudo-families. Finally, all of this decadence is supported by our individualism and consumerism that for the sake of profit exploit these vicious tendencies while neglecting genuine social justice.